Building bridges and crossing them

The first Economy of Communion Assembly in Brazil

By Elizabeth Garlow

from Living City, November 2011

Little did I know when I dove into the Economy of Communion project as an undergraduate student that I would become a part of an incredible network of students, academics, development workers and everyday individuals who look to base their economic and work lives on a “culture of giving,” rather than the dominant “culture of having” that often prevails in today’s society.

In fact, the witness of the EoC on how to harness the power of innovation and entrepreneurial activity to affect positive social change is ultimately what led me to work in my current field of microfinance, and to continue exploring avenues of entrepreneurship aimed at creating new structures to address widespread societal problems.

This past May, I had the opportunity to attend an international gathering and celebration of the 20th anniversary of the EoC project, near Sao Paulo, Brazil. It began with a four-day gathering of 600 people, including entrepreneurs, NGO workers, academics and students. Interactive panels centered upon how the project has transformed our way of looking at the world: the first day focused on the point of view of business practitioners, then panels explored sociological and anthropological perspectives, and the last day was dedicated to perspectives on economic development.

Observing and participating in the dialogue, I realized how the Economy of Communion’s shared vision of doing business with a “higher purpose” and “in communion” is building bridges between entrepreneurs, development workers and business people — between theory and practice.

Another major theme of the conference, and a recurring theme in my current line of work, is building bridges between rich and poor. In exploring the EoC, and in my own work, I have often found myself reflecting on the use of these very words: “rich” and “poor.” How are we to define poverty? Doesn’t everyone have something to give? Can everyone be a protagonist in building a more just and equitable society?

Certainly, there are many dimensions of poverty. What the EoC helps me to see is that everyone can play a key role; everyone has something to give. And yet, our local communities, our countries and the world are divided by stark contrasts in income levels. Reflecting on the income gap that led to the launch of the EoC twenty years ago, we realized that the project today is still wrestling, revisiting and rethinking how we define poverty, and how we see and interact with those who are helped monetarily through EoC profits; ultimately how they too play an active role in building an economy of communion.

EoC entrepreneurs have recognized the many forms of poverty among employees and in their local communities – including loneliness and a thirst for achieving basic dignity through the opportunity to work. Today the project includes a growing number of cooperative models that aim to provide work to those who are most marginalized, including disadvantaged youth, the formerly incarcerated and mentally handicapped. This generates an important kind of social capital.

The meeting in Brazil also highlighted ways that commissions responsible for advancing the EoC in their local communities can reach out to those that have received financial assistance, to continually be in relationship with them and to highlight their contribution to the EoC, whether by sharing wealth or sharing needs — both of which are considered real, active and important contributions — or through other kinds of participation. For me, this way of relating and building real communities is where the rubber hits the road.

In parts of Latin America, EoC profits are now being used for microfinance, meaning to provide microloans to help individuals start or grow small business ventures that can create a livelihood for them and their families. In turn, these entrepreneurs become part of the EoC community, sharing values, life experiences and profits.

Working in the field of microfinance, I see how the EoC helps me to understand the importance of going beyond providing a financial service, and focus on building a relationship with the client, connecting them to a larger community where possible. The EoC views such small businesses as clients, rather than beneficiaries, and these clients in turn, become protagonists in the development of others, oftentimes as leaders in their own communities.

While in Brazil, I had a clearer understanding of how the EoC fosters a method of doing business and an approach to building a society “where no one is in need.” It is based on a commitment to build relationships, in each present moment and in love, with the person next to us, be it a customer, employee, co-worker, competitor, etc. The EoC also seeks out the marginalized and works to build relationships of brotherhood based on inclusion.

This is the kind of behavior that I hope becomes contagious as we build and cross very important bridges between entrepreneur and academic, supplier and customer, business and consumer, rich and poor.

Elizabeth Garlow directs the EoC North American Board and is a business development officer at ACCION USA, a non-profit organization providing microloans to small businesses in the U.S.

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